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The death camps of North Korea

By Max Dunbar.


Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden, Macmillan 2012

Christopher Hitchens devoted a few pages of his book about George Orwell to a description of the North Korean slave state – a place ‘almost indescribable without reference to a certain short novel that had been bashed out on an old typewriter, against the clock, by a dying English radical almost half a century before.’ Having visited North Korea, Hitchens could write about the atmosphere of terror and containment and the horrendous famines in cities, countryside and towns. He recognised the obscene contrast between the self-aggrandising propaganda of the regime and the true state of North Korea’s infrastructure and the lives of its people. (There is a fine illustration of this contrast in a recent Independent piece on North Korean architecture. A photograph shows the ‘Heroic Youth Motorway’ – an eight-lane highway built by slave labour. In the image you can only see four vehicles because most North Koreans cannot afford cars.)

Journalists who enter this closed world are well monitored and risk being thrown into prison if they deviate from the standard route. There was one aspect of North Korean life that Hitchens’ minders never showed him, and he concluded that ‘we know almost nothing of its secret prisons and remote detention camps. But one prediction I make is that before this book of mine goes on to the remainder shelf we will have found out.’

In general, not much is said about the oppression of North Koreans. International relations with the state tend to be about firefighting – dealing with this rocket launch, or that nuclear test. Diplomats are trying to handle the constant threat that the unpredictable Kim regime may start throwing plutonium around, and do not have the space or time to consider the fates of people who actually have to live in North Korea. Some on the authoritarian left – not many, but they exist – support the Kims out of a moronic anti-imperialism taken to its logical and extreme endpoint.

The regime itself is a source of endless hilarity to Western comedians from the South Park team to the Daily Mash. Like almost all dictatorships, the Kim family is innately ludicrous. (On last year’s succession of Kim Jong-Eun, Harden writes that ‘Other than having the right blood, the son’s qualifications were meagre. He attended a German-language school in Leibefeld, Switzerland, where he played point guard on the basketball team and spent hours making pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan.’) Yet I think that the ‘comedy dictatorship’ reputation North Korea has developed can’t but obscure, at least in part, the real suffering.

Still the beginnings of a dissident literature emerge. In 2009 the LA Times‘ Korea correspondent Barbara Demick published Nothing to Envy, a study of life in the North city of Chongjin; there is also defector Hyok Kang’s account of his childhood and the famine in Onsong (which I reviewed here) and of course Aquariums of Pyongyang, written by Kang Chol-hwan, who escaped the North Korean death camps – the prison within a prison, the hell within a hell and the worst place in the world within the worst place in the world. Escape from Camp 14 is a survivor memoir written by the US journalist Blaine Harden based on his relationship with Shin Dong-hyuk, who also escaped from a death camp. But Shin’s story has a difference. He was born there.

‘In stories of concentration camp survival, there is a continuous narrative arc,’ Harden writes. The protagonist leads a happy civilised life with family and friends. Then: the knock on the door. Thrown into Auschwitz or Solovetsky, his loved ones gassed or shot or starved to death, the protagonist ‘abandons moral principles, suppresses feelings for others and ceases to be a civilised human being.’ The survivor gets through by little scams and trust games, by a friendship formed in unimaginable endurance, perhaps sustains himself with religious belief, some clutched and battered totem or memories of the other life out there. The North Korean survivor story is a departure.

‘The North Korean labour camps have now existed for twice as long as the Soviet Gulag,’ Harden writes, ‘and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps.’ There are entire generations of people who have known the camp and nothing else. The US State Department puts the number of prisoners at 200,000. There’s a camp that is bigger than Los Angeles. You can see them on Google Earth. Most of the prisoners are considered ‘irredeemables’ and the authorities do not waste propaganda on them. Many prisoners couldn’t tell you who Kim Jong-Il is. They are political prisoners fucked by the North Korean caste system. Harden: ‘Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him.’


Just as the Soviet experiment, which ostensibly created a brotherhood of man, encouraged an atmosphere of denounciation and tattletaling among its subjects (Conquest: ‘The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased’) the conditions of North Korea led to a selfish, heartless individualism of a level barely tolerated in any capitalist society. Camp 14 was a place where families would kill each other for a scrap of undigested corn foraged from dung. The way to stay alive was to snitch. After a fifteen-hour day in the mine or the cotton mill, inmates had to participate in self-criticism sessions where other inmates would be informed upon, berated, beaten and humiliated by the group. When his mother and brother plotted to escape the camp, Shin informed on them to a guard, in return for a promise of more food rations. The escape attempt failed, but the guard – following Camp 14’s rule of every man for himself – took the credit alone. Shin, then thirteen, was taken to an underground prison where he was suspended in a U-shape from the ceiling, then lowered towards an open fire. After eight months in the catacombs, Shin was released and made to watch the execution of his mother and brother. A crowd of wretched and malnourished inmates had been convened at gunpoint to enjoy the show. Shin’s mother was hung, his brother shot. At the time, though, Shin felt nothing. As far as he was concerned, his family had planned an escape attempt that had caused him a great deal of pain and inconvenience.

It was a natural attitude. Prisoners were worked to death by around fifty, ate almost nothing, and risked execution for a panoply of petty infractions. (Harden includes an appendix of camp rules: ‘Anyone who fails to secure permission from a guard for a meeting of more than two prisoners will be shot immediately’, ‘Anyone who fails to demonstrate total compliance with a guard’s instructions will be shot immediately’, ‘Anyone who does not acknowledge his sins and instead denies them or carries a deviant opinion of them will be shot immediately’.) Shin owed his birth to an incentive policy where the guards married strangers at random as ‘the ultimate bonus for hard work and reliable snitching.’ Married couples could sleep with each other on five nights a year. Sexual activity outside these parameters was punishable by – well, take a guess. Still, women were raped by guards, or traded sex for food. If they became pregnant, they were generally killed, and any babies carried to term were killed.

Because he was born in the mountain prison of Camp 14, Shin grew up with nothing to compare it with, and was spared the depressions and suicidal impulses that afflicted prisoners who had been sent in from outside. His snitching rewarded him with a relatively easy job on the pig farm, where there was more forage and you could sometimes sleep in the daytime; used to much harder conditions, Shin felt that he could live and work on the pig farm for the rest of his life.

His friendship with Park changed that. Park had been a connected Party man in his former life. He had fled to China after a quarrel with another government man, then had been foolish enough to return. Park was a well-travelled bon-vivant, who amazed Shin with stories of the outside world. Shin was particularly interested in Park’s anecdotes about food, the cuisine of Russia, China, Germany – ‘Freedom, in Shin’s mind, was just another word for grilled meat.’ A chance for escape came on a tree-trimming detail. At the right moment Park and Shin detached themselves from the group and walked towards the fence. They attempted to get through without touching the electrified wires. Park was first to the fence and was fried. Shin was able to get through unharmed, by using Park’s body as an insulator. It was the first in an astounding sequence of fortunate moments that allowed Shin to run to China, then Seoul, and finally to America. Luck plays a huge role in this tale – except that (as Orwell might have said) it would have been luckier not to have been born in Camp 14 at all.

It’s little surprise that defectors who make it out of North Korea tend to arrive in Seoul with not just a range of physical, developmental and malnutrition-related health problems, but also a mental attitude that takes paranoia as an article of faith. North Koreans have difficulty adjusting. They get into fights. South Korea’s refugee centres have to spend months educating them about things like money, and employment, and taxation. Shin comes across as a troubled young man, who finds it difficult to trust. The survivor of survivor narrative finds closure and completeness once s/he is out of the camps, but it’s clear that Shin is still learning, still changing and feeling his way along.

Harden intersperses Shin’s story with wider developments in North Korea. The Kim regime lost food subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed. The resulting famine was too terrible even for the authorities to ignore. No one is allowed to leave North Korea on pain of death, but by 2005 – the time of Shin’s escape from Camp 14 – there was a substantial traffic across the Chinese border. Starving North Koreans would cross the river at great personal risk, work illegally in China for a year or so, send remittances, and come back with food and goods. North Korea is a poor country. The Russian academic Andrei Lankov told Harden that ‘an elite family in Pyongyang does not live nearly as well – in terms of material possessions, creature comforts and entertainment options – as the family of an average salary man in Seoul’. An outside partner in Kim Jong-Il’s international, million-dollar insurance fraud scam was given, by way of dictatorial largesse, some fruit, DVD players and blankets.

There is a crack in everything, Leonard Cohen sang. A chink of reality permeated the closed state. The government softened its emigration policy and permitted licensed traders to cross the border without fear of persecution. But open borders provide context, and perspective. Soon the traffic of food and basic household goods was supplemented by lines in CDs, radios and pirated films. Worse: the Americans and South Koreans saw an opportunity to help more North Koreans defect to Seoul and the West. The Kims responded by laying down more electric fence, and instituting hard mandatory sentences for anyone who tried to cross the border. The chink of light, shining on such lightless landscape, was abruptly extinguished.

In his essay on the Spanish civil war, George Orwell challenged the idea, contemporary to his time and ours, that ‘evil always defeats itself in the long run’:

Consider for instance the re-institution of slavery. Who could have imagined twenty years ago that slavery would return to Europe? Well, slavery has been restored under our noses. The forced-labour camps all over Europe and North Africa where Poles, Russians, Jews and political prisoners of every race toil at road-making or swamp-draining for their bare rations, are simple chattle slavery. The most one can say is that the buying and selling of slaves by individuals is not yet permitted. In other ways — the breaking-up of families, for instance — the conditions are probably worse than they were on the American cotton plantations. There is no reason for thinking that this state of affairs will change while any totalitarian domination endures. We don’t grasp its full implications, because in our mystical way we feel that a regime founded on slavery must collapse. But it is worth comparing the duration of the slave empires of antiquity with that of any modern state. Civilizations founded on slavery have lasted for such periods as four thousand years.

From a Washington Post editorial, commenting on Harden’s findings:

High school students in America debate why Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.

Globalisation means that no country can have a steel, vacuum-packed, non-porous border. As long as some people get out, there is hope for those left inside. Right now, though, all the free world will do is wonder when the camps will fall, and what will walk out – and whether the guilt and shame will be possible for us to bear.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 25th, 2012.